The ancestors will tell you, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him you have a plan. This is the best way I could describe my experience posting my memoir Not all boys are blue. For months, I prepared for a book tour and book release party to celebrate such an important moment in my career and in my life. And five weeks before its release, the entire world closed, including every bookstore across the country as we walked into life with COVID.
Releasing a book during the containment of an unprecedented pandemic was certainly not how I imagined I would start my career as an author. But I knew my words had to be in the world and that despite the current climate we lived in, I had a duty to make sure that everyone who needed this book knew it existed. And although I didn’t know what was going to happen, I knew I had released something special.
A few weeks after the release, the world too.
Fast forward eight weeks after the book’s release, and it had become an independent bestseller and made People magazine, Buzzfeed, and Vogue teensfrom the “Best Books of the Summer” list. He was then chosen for the development of television by Gabrielle Union and Sony TV. At the end of the year, My Thoughts on Growing Up Black and Gay was named Best Book of the Year 2020 by Amazon, New York and Chicago Public Libraries, and Kirkus Reviews, along with the issue. no. 1 book from the Young Adult Student Library Association. 18 months later, it was now in multiple languages, including French and Spanish, and opened up the world to the existence of queer black people at the intersection of race and identity.
The book is still doing very well in all markets. It seemed to me that my queer Black story was one that would not be disputed. Sadly, in this world, stories that center on anything other than cis-gender, white heteronormativity are unacceptable by society’s standard.
Six weeks ago this truth came to fruition.
A few curators in a Kansas City County have decided to publish excerpts from two chapters of my book where I describe my first sexual relations as a teenager and young adult. Both of these snippets were labeled as “porn,” despite a detailed author’s note at the beginning of the book that prepared these sections, and the fact that they are less than 10 pages of the 320-page book. I laughed at it, but I knew this would only be the beginning of what would be a fight for the truth in black storytelling.
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As the old folks say, “You don’t have to prepare yourself if you stay ready. It wasn’t as much about ‘if’ my book would be banned for me as it was about ‘when’ it would be banned, and would I be ready? What I was. Stories like mine have always been denied to the young people who need them most. We know that young people become future leaders, so having access to stories like mine that shape their world in truth becomes dangerous for the stability of whiteness. I am angry that we are fighting for the ability to just tell the truth. I am pissed that our experiments are judged to be scholarly because their critique of whiteness and oppression rejects everything we have ever been taught about American history.
So they try to erase these stories so that the young people become people of power with a narrow lens of the people who exist in this world. This ban makes me feel the same anger and rage that my ancestors felt when their stories were erased or never told. The same anger and rage I had when I was a teenager when I couldn’t see myself or had the language to know who I was because stories of people like me were kept out.
Now, six weeks after the ban began, with more than 10 states removing it from their high school libraries and even a criminal complaint filed (which was rejected) – I know my fight to protect the rights of black storytelling, queer storytelling, and students with access to material will be long. I refuse to let young people grow up in a world like I did where I didn’t feel seen or heard – only dooming them to make the same mistakes of the past. In addition, these students have the right, protected by the First Amendment, to have access to material that they deem necessary for themselves.
As a child who had only had the opportunity to read texts by young heterosexual white boys and girls, I knew my story would shake up unfounded notions about “the innocence of white children” in this country. This is extremely hypocritical at best since we black children read books that not only had characters that were unlike us, but used racist, anti-black, and indigenous language to make us feel inferior.
Whether it’s Huck Finn and the use of the N word, or The invisible Man calling indigenous peoples “savages,” we have never read a text that respects us. The text always spoke of the existence of whites and the harshness of struggles for whites who only created their own struggles in a world where they had all the power. Black children attend schools named after whites who owned slaves. Read books that shape slavery simply as a “mistake”, rather than the root of their present existence. In a world that oppresses us from birth, these white papers that we are forced to read as read-only reinforce this notion.
Censorship is dangerous because it erases the truth of the reality we live in to create an alternative world to what the majority (white people) want it to be. Several counties are urging government officials to make it a crime to hand over these books to young people. In Spotsylvania County, Virginia, school board members suggested the public burning of our books – something that had not been seen from Nazi Germany.
This is the reason why more than 8 million people were enslaved in this country, but we have less than 6,000 accounts of their experience. To ensure this never happens again, we write books that tell the stories of our ancestors from a black lens in their entirety, in the absence of the blank gaze that we have been conditioned to read as the truth. We can now tell our experiences in real time, ensuring that the erasure of the past does not repeat itself.
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Whether we use terms like fairness or critical race theory, the heart of our storytelling centers on one thing: truth. Censorship at the base is refusing us to speak our truth, just like the denial of our ancestors. America has reached a point where whites are seeing their power as a majority in this nation slip away where people of color will outnumber them over the next two decades. Their fear of it continues to lead them to deny us space in all facets, including our storytelling. Removing ourselves and our stories does not deny our existence and has never.
We refuse to be silent in this fight. I use my platform to continue to fight against these attempts to take my book down while still allowing students to activate their rights in a way I have never had the opportunity to do in the past. You will not deny our youth in the same way that was denied to me and to millions of our ancestors who had a story that deserved the right to be told.
Not all boys are blue is available wherever books are sold.
George M. Johnson is a writer and activist whose first book, All the Boys Are Not Blue, is a manifesto about growing up black and gay in America.